The Best TV on the Web
Watching the boob tube once meant having to consume your entertainment in front of an actual television. But these days, if you miss an episode of Grey's Anatomy or Heroes and forgot to set the DVR, no problem: You can catch up online for free with streaming video supplied by the Hollywood networks and studios themselves.
Television entertainment has busted out of the television and onto computer screens everywhere. Think of it as the rebirth of television, delivered via a new, interactive medium that gives viewers more choice over what they watch--and when, where, and how they watch it.
Thanks to the explosive growth of YouTube and social networking sites like MySpace, video permeates all aspects of Web life. And though short-form user-generated and professional video has a fairly lengthy history on the Web, a perfect storm of conditions has driven the growth of the Internet's emergence as a means of distributing high-quality television entertainment.
The proportion of U.S. households with broadband continues to grow, according to research firm NPD Group. Web 2.0 technologies have contributed to advances in how sites can present video. Meanwhile, most computer configurations of the past couple of years have sufficient processing power and large enough displays to make watching high-bit-rate video a viable, not torturous, experience.
All of these factors have encouraged television audiences to turn to the Web to fill in their viewing blanks. A Nielsen Company study conducted for the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing and released in June noted that 35 percent of adult broadband users in its survey group had used the Internet to watch at least one program originally shown on TV.
Many of today's video experiences more closely approximate the TV experience than the networks' PC-centric, postage-stamp-size efforts of yore. The new programming is also more interactive, with greater viewer control over player size (including options such as 720p HD, full-screen, mini-player screen, pop-up trivia, or audio tracks) and with social networking capabilities such as embedding full episodes or episodes clips, forum discussions, and hooks into Facebook and MySpace. The streamed video's resolution may vary dramatically, and sites rarely report the actual figure to viewers at home--largely because most sites employ adaptive streaming techniques to adjust bit rate and resolution in the background depending on individual users' system capabilities and bandwidth.
Hollywood's rush to the Web makes sense: Networks and content producers are simply following the migration of their audience online by making television--defined here as professionally produced full-length episodic or sports content--available on the Internet. The peculiarities of online distribution or syndication deals mean that you can find multiple sites that offer the same content. And many of those sites link to a third-party site that hosts the video itself. The end result resembles a linkfest at the sausage factory. We looked at a large cross-section of sites to determine the state of television on the Web today, and we found that even when content offerings appear to be identical, the viewing experience depends to a large extent on where you get your video. The sites we considered fall into three categories: aggregators, portals, and networks (we examined the big four networks, not individual cable networks; and we skipped pay-to-dowload TV options as well).
In many ways, the mish-mosh of overlapping content online transforms finding the content you want into a confusing treasure hunt. There's no single stop on the Net where you can find everything you want without being referred somewhere else.
Ultimately, I found plenty of TV to stream via the Web, and I enjoyed the convenience and the opportunity to rediscover favorite series from the past. I preferred the in-browser experiences to those that involved installing a separate player or browser plug-in--though I did what I had to do to catch the episode of Grey's Anatomy that I'd missed.
In the end, Hulu remained my favorite site to use; but I wish that its catalog were growing faster (where are the third seasons of Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer?). Also, despite finding much to like about streaming television via the Web, I don't plan to ditch my DVD and Blu-ray collection anytime soon.
Aggregator sites showcase streaming television, drawing their content from multiple sources. Since aggregators focus on entertainment, their goal is to build a comprehensive entertainment experience.
Hulu--ranked by PC World staff as the number one product of 2008 (see "The 100 Best Products of 2008")--remains the gold standard among aggregator sites for finding and viewing free television on the Web.
Hulu makes locating and watching high-quality video extremely easy, and it has one of the best collections of current content and reruns around (its growing catalog numbers 3000-plus TV episodes). Only CBS and ABC content is missing here; and to counter that deficiency Hulu indexes video content from other sites, so you can find episodes of Lost, Star Trek, or How I Met Your Mother with a single click of an external link on Hulu.
Browse through shows by genre, title, or network, or plug a title or actor into the search engine. If full episodes are available, a TV icon will appear next to each such entry.
The video player, which dominates the Hulu experience, makes Hulu feel closer to a true television experience--especially in full-screen video mode. The player is neatly organized, with none of the clutter that abounds at countless other sites. Run your mouse over the video screen, and various controls become visible to the sides and at the bottom of the video screen. By default, the site shows video at 700 kbps (for 700p video, better than DVD), but it automatically reduces the transfer rate to 480 kbps (for 480p video), and may dip as low as 360 kbps (360p), if your bandwidth connection warrants it.
You can watch video full-screen or in a pop-out player (which puts the video player into its own self-contained window); the raise/lower lights function conveniently darkens the screen around the video you're watching within the browser. Social networking options let you embed, e-mail, or share a video.
Little touches such as predictive text search and the ability to create a viewing queue increase Hulu's comprehensiveness. Even the commercials are tolerable: Most of the ones I encountered lasted for about 15 seconds each, and the player dynamically tracked how much time remained until playback would resume. A Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode from season two, for example, had four commercial breaks plus one introductory "sponsored by" message (an unobtrusive banner ad from the chief sponsor appeared within the browser window throughout the playback). An episode of The Simpsons had just three commercial breaks, plus the intro sponsorship notice. Though I couldn't fast forward through the commercial breaks, I could skip past a break point to jump to the last third of the episode, for example.
Fancast, from Cable giant Comcast, debuted earlier this year. It admirably combines a bargeload of information about television shows with an enjoyable online video experience. Fancast, still in beta, seems to be dedicated to broadening on-demand video and helping site visitors find the shows they want, whether on the Web or delivered via TV (through Comcast's cable box-based on-demand service or through a cable channel).
Though the full-episode playback experience was pleasant--Fancast's layout and visual design make it fairly simple to navigate--finding full episodes of shows could be easier. The site has so much going on, with multiple paths to the same endpoints, and some of those paths are clearer than others.
Here, too, the browser-based player is central to the presentation, though you can opt for a full-size player or for a tiny pop-out player that you can position anywhere on your desktop. Unfortunately, video (even Hulu video) looked unduly pixelated at full-screen resolution. Many of the episodes come from Comcast's distribution deal with Hulu; others, from Comcast's separate deals with CBS and ABC. Video dimensions and resolutions vary from one provider to another.
One noteworthy convenience is the ability to resume where you left off--no other site I examined offers this feature. On the horizon is a Fancast store, for buying digital content for download.
TV Guide, not content with its status as king of the programming grid, now offers a compelling Online Video Guide. TV Guide's new owner, Macrovision (yes, the same company responsible for copy protection), aims to expand the role of video on the site. For the moment, however, video is just one component of the TV Guide site's offerings.
TV Guide lets you browse videos based on top shows, top celebrities, genres, or networks. Its comprehensive video search integrates everything from the paid world of iTunes, CinemaNow, and Amazon Unbox to the free streaming world of Hulu and CBS. The advanced search lets you narrow searches to only free or only paid videos, and to only full episodes or only clips. Results are shown in two columns, one with links to full episodes, the other with links to clips; if you like, you can sort within the clip or full episode category by free or paid.
Like Hulu, TV Guide's search puts you one click away from full video hosted on other sites. Video offerings from Hulu and other sources pop up within TV Guide's own pop-up player, which launches on top of the browser screen; you must then choose to enlarge the video to full screen or minimize your browser window--a minor annoyance. A larger annoyance is TV Guide's distractingly busy interface, which impedes your efforts to find what you want and to enjoy the video once you've found it.
Veoh Networks differs from the other aggregators in that it focuses on both user-generated and professional video, offering the best of both the community and pro worlds.
The site has worked out distribution deals with Hulu, ABC, CBS, ESPN (for short-form content), NCAA Football, Viacom, and Warner Brothers, making it one of the more comprehensive aggregators around.
The in-browser player is large and changes from 4:3 aspect ratio to wide screen, depending upon the video. The page is better designed than most--not overwhelmingly busy despite being filled with links to content related to a given episode. The source of each video is clearly identified. Most of the syndicated content plays within Hulu's player on Hulu's site, but video from ABC will work only in the ABC player (when you click on ABC content, Hulu launches a separate window and prompts you to install the player separately if you don't already have it). Interestingly, though CBS content plays in-browser here, Star Trek episodes wouldn't properly display full-screen as they do at CBS. Another quirk: The same How I Met Your Mother episodes that seemingly had expired and wouldn't play on AOL played fine on Veoh.
Social features at Veoh include the tools for uploading videos or publishing them to other sites, including Facebook and MySpace.
Joost was one of the earliest aggregators, and today the site boasts roughly 28,000 TV shows and more than 480 channels. Mind you, many of those shows and channels aren't top-of-the-charts programming, and not all are long-form content (meaning, the equivalent of a 30-minute or 1-hour TV episode).
Now in beta 1.7, Joost remains in transition. The company had to shut down its discussion forums (which were linked to content) because it is developing a Web-browser based version of the software. Before watching any content, you have to install the Joost player--which can be annoying given its need for outgoing ports (it conflicted with my installation of BitDefender, for example).
Because Joost runs in the background and uses peer-to-peer networking to facilitate downloads, you can exhaust your available bandwidth quickly. Joost says that its application will gauge your available bandwidth and dial-down usage accordingly, but its site also still cautions against bandwidth overuse (see "The Gear You Need to Watch TV on the Web?").
Channels are sorted by show or network or production company (for example. Beverly Hills, 90210 or Comedy Central or Warner Brothers). The channels mix up full episodes and short clips--annoying if you're looking for one over the other.
The site's presentation of video choices is highly graphical and visual, thanks to thumbnails and large fonts that stand out from the page. But the interface needs help: It's not always clear which episode you're clicking or what else is available for a given show.
Browsing by channel quickly gets wearisome, as you have to page through 40-something pages of thumbnails, with no clear indication of whether full episodes or clips lie beneath the thumbnail for a given content channel. Original Star Trek episodes (again, supplied by CBS), for example, simply state "Star Trek: The Original Series - Errand of M" (the "ercy" gets cut off from the screen).
MySpace TV feels more like McTV, rife with snippets and short doses of content rather than full episodes of TV shows. Hulu supplies the full episodes, with language skewed to the teen set ("booyah" and "no way" substitute something else for the 'thumbs up' and 'thumbs down' icons provided for rating videos). MySpace deserves notice for publishing some original-content Webisodes, but beyond that it has nothing you can't get elsewhere.
AOL, MSN, and Yahoo offer a vast array of content in their role as gateways to the Web. Full-episode video is but a small piece of their empires, and all three lean heavily on repackaging Hulu's content.
MSN Video depends on MSN's syndication deal with Hulu for much of its full-episode video. But the experience is nothing like watching video on Hulu.com: The interface is busier, and the video quality is inferior to what you get on Hulu proper (as is the case with all Hulu-syndicated video) Nor is the content all the same: Babylon 5, for example, was nowhere to be found under MSN Video, though readily available at Hulu).
Click on the TV tab at MSN's Video Guide, and you'll jump to a page dedicated to all things television, including TV listings and coverage of what's new on TV. The site's Watch Full Episodes module is the most expeditious and friendly way to find full episodes of TV shows; alternatively you can select 'Browse TV Shows' on the menu up top, and then select 'Shows with Free Episodes'. But finding episodes may require 10 clicks or more. For example, with an older show like Remington Steele, which ran for five seasons, you click the name of the show, then click on 'episodes', and then click through to at least page 6 of 7 to view available episodes (the episodes are listed in inverse order, with newer episodes first; and only the first two seasons are available online--hence the lengthy and annoying search process).
MSN Video's presentation of video from Hulu is far busier and more annoying than Hulu's own. For The Simpsons and for A.L.F., for example, MSN Video displays the four episodes and thumbnails at left, with the player midscreen, and episode information at right. The in-browser video player is smaller, and the resolution is noticeably lower than on Hulu.com; I observed pixelation in both in-browser and full-screen modes.
The in-browser and full-screen players carry a Hulu logo overlay in the lower right corner, but neither carries the same time-line marks for commercial breaks that Hulu does. The same Simpsons episode had longer commercial breaks at MSN (30 seconds each) than it did at Hulu (15 seconds each).
MSN Video is frustratingly inconsistent, too: When I searched for Remington Steele in the search function, and returned a bunch of episode thumbnails. I clicked one, and additional episode thumbnails populated the left frame--and the Hulu-branded page appeared within a frame at the right (with a link to launch the full Hulu site). MSN would be better off killing this convoluted mess than subjecting users to it.
AOL has put together a far more manageable structure for full-episode video than MSN's. Here, the videos are presented by episode titles, top shows, most recent, most viewed, and highest rated. The entry page has a lot of components, but it's neither confusing nor intimidating. AOL has partnered with Hulu. ABC, and CBS. Some content, such as the soap opera The Edge of Night, comes from AOL Television's In2TV.
Unlike at other sites, CBS videos play in-line within AOL's browser. Nevertheless, the experience at AOL can be frustrating. For example, I clicked on How I Met Your Mother, and got 11 clips--with no designation of which were simply clips, and which were full episodes. In the player screen, the same thumbnails appeared at right, this time with their running times, indicating that 9 of the 11 were actual episodes. Unfortunately, some of the options appeared to be duplicates (to judge from the episode names), and none of them actually worked. One of the clips I picked was no longer available, and the AOL page simply referred me to CBS's own site. Episodes of CSI had similar issues, with clips--originating from "CBS on AOL"--no longer available. And the thumbnails were identical, anyway. Talk about a waste of clicks. (In AOL's defense, I later had a similar experience with expired CBS content at other sites; still, AOL's layout makes the extra clicks all the more annoying.)
Babylon 5 was here, but it was part of AOL Television's In2TV not an import from Hulu. Because all of the thumbnails showed the same still image, I couldn't use them to help identify the episode (nor could I rely onthe running time--all episodes were listed as being 26 minutes long, unlikely given that the original broadcasts ran for an hour each, with commercials). Many other Warner Brothers--produced shows appear on In2TV (Time Warner is the corporate parent to both), including numerous shows, such as The Adventures of Brisco County Jr, That I didn't find elsewhere on Hulu.
At the highest quality setting (for broadband, greater than 700 kbps), images looked blocky and pixelated. The smallish in-browser player was passable, but the full-screen Babylon 5 experience was not. Remington Steele, whose video originated from Hulu, came closer to matching the Hulu experience than not; but even here, the Hulu.com version seemed to possess a little more detail than the Hulu-by-way-of-AOL version.
Yahoo offers full episodes, too, but the experience remains rudimentary at best. Yahoo's partnership with Hulu is source of available episodes. The player occupies more of the page than do the players on AOL or MSN, and like other Hulu syndication sites it carries the Hulu bug; but the mediocre images made me wonder why anyone would go here for video rather than going directly to Hulu.
At least Yahoo has a wide-screen player; AOL and MSN have only a 4:3 aspect-ratio player, which means that shows filmed in 16:9 high-definition format, like 30 Rock, end up displaying in letterbox format.
In the past year, the Big Four broadcast networks have taken aggressive steps to make content available online. According to a Nielsen Company study released in June, 87 percent of survey participants who watched a TV program online did so on a TV network site; 82 percent of those users sought out a show they missed on TV. Typically, you can find at least 80 percent of each network's prime-time broadcast schedule online.
That's good news for viewers and networks. Viewers are flocking to network sites because they associate Grey's Anatomy and Lost with ABC, or 30 Rock and Heroes with NBC. Nonetheless, the networks are using a two-pronged approach to distribute content online. They're beefing up the offerings on their own Web sites, and they're also setting up distribution deals with other sites so their video reaches audiences throughout the Web.
NBC and Fox, for example, cofounded Hulu. Both networks mirror the content they make available on their own sites with what they offer on Hulu. ABC and CBS have brokered deals with multiple sites. In ABC's case, viewers must view the episode within ABC's player; in CBS's case, most partner sites direct viewers to the page within CBS.com (one exception to this rule is Veoh Networks, which lets you watch CBS content within the Veoh environment).
ABC and Fox use Move Networks' player in the background, so you'll need to install this browser plug-in to open and play episodes. CBS uses its own player, while NBC uses Move's technology for its browser-based player.
ABC is at the forefront of streaming high-definition video: Select episodes, including all four seasons of Lost, are available in 720p high definition. The image quality falls far short of what you'd get on Blu-ray Disc, but it's still impressive--assuming that you have the hardware and the bandwidth to handle playback (see "The Gear You Need to Watch TV on the Web?"). I saw more detail, greater clarity, better contrast, and superior depth in the images--along with some pixelation and artifacting.
The ABC player launches into its own pop-up Window. The site's design makes finding complete episodes easy, though the home page is way too busy. Regrettably, video clips are intermingled with full episodes. ABC had episodes of 19 shows available in their entirety, including hits like Brothers & Sisters, Desperate Housewives, Grey's Anatomy, and Lost (seasons one through four in high-definition, and season four in standard-definition streaming video as well).
The player has four size options--mini, normal, big, and full screen. Each size serves up a different combination of resolution and bit rate, and the bit rate adjusts in the background depending on your bandwidth. Unfortunately, audio and video occasionally got out-of-sync in my playback tests.
Five commercials--featuring a mix of video and still content, and in some instances a degree of interactivity--intruded on my viewing of each 60-minute episode of Lost and Grey's Anatomy. My biggest gripe, though, was that I had to click manually to continue playing the show after a commercial finished--in case I wanted to stare at the end screen of an ad indefinitely, I guess. At least the advertisements give you a countdown of how much time remains before the show will resume.
CBS maintains a collection of full episodes of both current and classic series--including episodes that you may not associate with the CBS television network but that CBS now owns--cult and quasi-cult favorites such as the original Star Trek series, The Twilight Zone, Twin Peaks, Perry Mason, MacGyver, Melrose Place, The Love Boat, Hawaii Five-O, Family Ties, and Beverly Hills 90210.
The centrally positioned video player runs inside the browser, dominating the screen (it's bigger than the player on Veoh). You can view vdeos at full-screen size, but the video quality degraded noticeably when I did so; and pixelation in the on-screen images was bad enough that I won't rush to repeat the experience. Despite having limited controls, you can skip ahead within the video. The player uses a 4:3 aspect ratio; episodes captured in wide-screen format are shown letterboxed.
The videos I watched had five 30-second commercials each, including one at the outset. You can share and embed video, with direct hooks into Facebook and Google Bookmarks; but regardless of what options show, you may not be able to do more than share a link to a particular video (in some videos, the embed option is grayed out due to rights issues).
Of CBS's current prime-time slate, some shows, including CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and How I Met Your Mother, had four current full-length episodes available for viewing when I visited the site. Others--including Big Brother and the already-canceled CBS series Jericho--had even more episodes; and still others, such as Two and a Half Men, Without a Trace, and Cold Case, had only clips.
The episodes are accessible via a video tab or through the home screen for each show. This approach makes sense for current programming--the video becomes part of the network's online treatment of that show (along with community, blogs, episode recaps, and cast information).
Fox makes it really easy to find full episodes: The network prominently displays this option at the top of its home page, and its site fosters navigation thanks to its clean, attractive, and uncluttered design. Fox on Demand, the full episode player, featured 20 shows--pretty much all but three of Fox's shows (missing are reality fests American Idol, So You Think You Can Dance, and Don't Forget the Lyrics).
Among the player's niceties are 'lights out' (to dim the text around the side of the player) and a nifty 'share episode' feature (as with NBC's player, you can share a full episode or a clip from a specific time code). Thumbnails, episode numbers, and episode titles for other available episodes appear at the bottom of the player screen; you can browse through these by scrolling from left to right. You choose either in-browser or full-screen video; both were of acceptable quality.
Fox fosters its own community by allowing registered users to rate and review shows.
NBC has aggressively pursued its NBCOlympics.com strategy (which includes more than 2600 hours of live streaming video and approximately 3500 hours of on-demand video). The busy home page makes video its centerpiece, but it provides too many ways of getting to the same place. Click on 'Shows' or on 'Watch Video' to see at a glance which programs are available as full episodes on NBC Video Rewind and which are available through NBC Direct, the network's beta service for digital downloads.
When I visited the site, the Shows tab accurately identified which series had episodes for viewing, but the Watch Video tab did not: There, 19 of the shows listed had full episodes, but 24 other listings (excluding movies and specials) did not. In some instances, full episodes were available--as in the case of Battlestar Galactica (the original 1970s version)--but I found them only after navigating to the particular show's landing page. Episodes are displayed in a row beneath the player, with thumbnails and episode descriptions that elegantly pop up as you mouse over them. A more accurate listing of shows appears at NBC.com\shows, which lists all of the shows and resources available online, including full episodes (in this view, 27 of the 42 shows listed had full episodes).
The video files play inside the browser, with extra features and download options visible briefly before they tuck away; the dark screen that surrounds the player thereafter makes for a very pleasant viewing experience. The player gives you three viewing options: Normal, Large, and Full Screen (letterboxed for wide-screen content); video quality in the Full Screen mode resembled that of an analog television image, free of the pixelation that I encountered with CBS's playback).
The series that I tried had closed captioning (pop-up text that ran to the right of the player in normal or large mode, or on top of the player in full-screen mode). Heroes had quick-bits interactive pop-up trivia, too. An extremely annoying flashing banner ad ran below the player on one Heroes episode. I endured five commercial breaks on Heroes; but they ran for a shorter time and were less annoying than the other commercials I saw on NBC.com.
An episode of The Office had three 30-second-plus commercial breaks. The ads here are a mixture of interactive media, stills, and video--in other words, they're much more intrusive new media than you get at other sites.
The Gear You Need to Watch TV on the Web?
High-quality video is a major bandwidth hog. If you plan to stream television from the Web, the bottleneck of greatest concern to you will be the downstream bandwidth you get from your ISP, not your system's limitations.
Most streaming-video sites call for a minimum broadband connection speed of about 800 kbps. You might get away with a little less (if you're in the vicinity of 700 kbps), but your experience will vary.
System minimums can vary wildly, too, but a typical configuration including a 1.5-GHz CPU is sufficient to handle ESPN360.com.
At the upper end of the range is ABC's player: To watch in high definition, you'll need a dual-core processor (AMD or Intel), 128MB of video memory, 1GB of RAM, a monitor with at least 1300 by 770 resolution, and a beefy broadband connection of 2 mbps or more.
Keep an eye on your ISP's bandwidth allowances. In an era when ISPs are intent on limitingbandwidth usage, the quantity of data involved in regularly streaming video can add up fast, especially if you already use your connection for other bandwidth-intensive activities. At Hulu, for example, 1 hour of video translates to about 200MB of data at 700 kbps, the default stream's bit rate.
The bandwidth issue becomes more critical when you deal with sites like Joost that rely on peer-to-peer networking to distribute their content. Under such an arrangement, you could be serving up video in the background without realizing that your PC is engaged in sending video out. Upon installation, Joost warns users that the player application runs in the background and uses a "relatively high amount of bandwidth per hour, which means that it could exceed a 1GB cap in a few hours."
Beyond bandwidth and system configuration issues, your online streaming video experience would be greatly enhanced by a high-quality, large-screen LCD monitor. A model such as the HP w2007 (from our most recent chart) can help make streaming video seem less of a computer experience and more of a living room experience.
Sports Frenzy: More Than the Score Online
The Olympics are in full swing in August, and NBCOlympics.com has blanketed the Internet with streaming and on-demand coverage (see "Summer Olympics Stream to a PC Near You" for more on the games; video will be available on-demand at NBCOlympics.com for a couple of weeks following the competition). But the Olympics aren't the only sporting events getting the gold treatment these days--you can find in-depth coverage of virtually any sport you can imagine (well, maybe not buzkashi) online.
Unlike sites that boast full episodes of TV series programming, sports-centric sites often charge a fee (typically a subscription fee) and target true enthusiasts of the sport. Major League Baseball, CBS College Sports XXL, the NBA, and NHL's Center Ice Online all charge a subscription fee for access to games and other content (CBS College Sports XXL even covers press conferences).
Sports such as gymnastics, beach volleyball, rowing, swimming, and track and field receive generous attention at UniversalSports.com (formerly WCSN.com; by subscription), which launched as a streaming-video network three years ago. NBC Universal recently purchased a controlling stake in the World Championship Sports Network, and content from the site will be spun off onto a new cable network, Universal Sports.
NFL.com doesn't show football games in their entirety, but it does post clips and highlights, plus wrap-up shows, for free.
Many sites provide some type of short-form content for free on their site, or distribute their content elsewhere. For example, the NHL offers video of games for free via Hulu and Joost, and for pay via Amazon Unbox and Apple iTunes.
One of the most limited sports options online is ESPN360.com. It delivers full coverage of such events as soccer, rugby, cricket, and Wimbledon tennis, but there's a catch: It works only with AT&T Yahoo (SBC) and Verizon broadband network connections. So much for catching Venus Williams's 127-mph serve.